Sometimes, while Kim Brooks is grading essays by her college composition students, she cries. "Not real tears, exactly—more a spontaneous, guttural sob, often loud and unpleasant enough to startle my husband or children," she writes in Salon. Why? Because many of these students "simply ... cannot write." They don't have basic skills, like knowing how to organize paragraphs, how to write a thesis statement, how to outline, how to proofread or edit, or even "how to make sure their sentences contain a subject and a verb." Is this the fault of the traditional high-school English class, full of class discussion but little writing and almost no grammar education?
That class, of course, was where Brooks herself "learned to read literature, to write about it and talk about it and recite it and love it." But nowadays such a course seems almost like "a profound waste of time." Brooks' students tell her about presentations, fancy group projects, and skits they did in high school, but much of the writing they do—as confirmed by one English department chairman—is "informal," partially because teachers are more concerned with keeping students engaged than educating them on comma usage. Understandable, writes Brooks, but it leads to "migraine-inducing, quasi-incomprehensible prose." Do kids even need to know how to write? As a fellow professor observes, "We've all gotten emails or cover letters where we've judged people based on the writing." Teaching these essential skills may not be fun, writes Brooks, but "sometimes we do things not because they're fun but because they're important." Click to read the rest of her thoughtful column. (Read more English stories.)